At the start of the twenty first century excited whispers emanated from Everton’s academy of an outstanding prospect, touched by genius, who boasted strength, élan, speed and fabulous technical ability. Periodically such talk emerges but comes to nothing: the prodigy’s team-mates catch up physically; his skill set levels out; or he discovers or other distractions. But when Evertonians saw Wayne Rooney, a forward who was barely sixteen and still at school, carry his teammates to the 2002 FA Youth Cup Final they could see straight away that he was the real deal. Better still, he was a born and blue Evertonian and after scoring in one Youth Team game, revealed a T-shirt that said ‘Once a blue, always a blue.’
An unused substitute for a game at Southampton at the tail end of the 2001/02 season, Rooney made his full debut on the opening day of the 2002/03 season, against Tottenham at Goodison. By later standards he had a quiet game, but set up Mark Pembridge for Everton’s opener. His first goals came six weeks later, late in a League Cup tie at Wrexham.
On 19 October 2002, reigning Premiership Champions, Arsenal, came to Goodison. Top of the table and unbeaten in their 29 previous league matches, their manager Arsène Wenger had, leading up to the game, spoken of the possibility of Arsenal going through the season unbeaten – a feat unparalleled in the modern English game. It was a measure of just how good his side were that nobody mocked his temerity. Rooney – still a week shy of his seventeenth birthday – entered as an eightieth minute substitute, the game tightly balanced at 1-1. In the final minute of normal time a high awkward pass from Gravesen was played to Rooney 35 yards from goal. His first touch was immaculate; he turned instantaneously and hit a fearsome swerving shot that dipped over Seaman and rebounded off the Park End crossbar to nestle in the back of the net. Goodison exploded. It was one of those ‘I was there moments’ – like Dean’s sixtieth or Graeme Sharp’s derby volley – that pass but once every generation.
Stocky, adroit, the possessor of an explosive turn of pace and – as the whole world saw against Arsenal – one of the most fearsome shots in football, Rooney was the most exciting English talent since Paul Gascoigne in the 1980s. He played entirely without fear and was as instinctive as he was brilliant. ‘He’s quick, skilful, strong and nasty, something I hope he doesn’t lose,’ said David Unsworth. ‘It’s hard not to get excited about how far he might go.’ In an era in which professional footballers had become divorced from their public, Rooney was also – initially, at least – of the people, living out his dream of playing for the club he adored. When newspaper reporters turned up on his doorstep in the wake of his Arsenal goal, they photographed an Everton pennant hanging from the window of his parents’ modest Croxteth home.
There were more sublime moments to come: a fiercely struck winner at Leeds that brought Everton their first Elland Road victory in 51 years; another winner at Blackburn; a mesmerising performance against Bolton that astonishingly yielded no goals. In February 2003, he became England’s youngest debutant, when, aged 17 years 3 months, he appeared against Australia. His form for Everton brought his club within touching distance of European qualification for the first time in eight years.
Everybody wanted a piece of Rooney and commercial endorsements rolled in. This, however, brought with it its own problems. His messy defection from Liverpool-based agent Peter McIntosh to Paul Stretford’s Proactive Sport Management was tarred by allegations of underworld involvement. Rooney retained his image rights as part of his first professional contract, which he sold to Stretford for a nominal sum. Stretford formed a separate company, allowing him to negotiate with other sponsors such as Ford, Coca-Cola and Pringles. Barely out of school, Rooney had a portfolio of endorsements worth as much as £10million.
Moyes seemed unimpressed by the teenager’s burgeoning stardom, and as the 2003/04 season kicked off cracks in their relationship started to show. Rooney started the season injured, scored in Everton’s third game against Charlton, then not again until mid-December. Often he started from the bench and was alternately petulant or too eager to please when introduced. There were some great performances, however, notably when he came on as a half time substitute when Everton faced Manchester United at Goodison in February 2004. Trailing 3-0, Rooney put in a dazzling performance and transformed the game, inspiring Everton to pull level – although in a twist that typified their season, they fell to a last minute United winner.
Everton finished the season just a place clear of relegation, their tally of points only 39 – the lowest since 1889. In most other seasons such a measly haul would have merited relegation. The season’s nadir came on its final day, when Everton fell to a 5-1 defeat against Manchester City – who started the day beneath them.
At the 2004 European Championships in Portugal, Rooney was England’s talisman and most outstanding player before he succumbed to injury in the quarter final. Without him, England limped out on penalties.
Back home a new five year contract offer promised to make Rooney the most highly paid player in Everton’s history. David Moyes spoke of making Rooney Everton’s captain and building a team around him. But off the field the club were in disarray. There was talk of Moyes losing the dressing room. There was no money for new signings. The club’s new chief executive walked out after six weeks. A boardroom split between Bill Kenwright and Paul Gregg, Everton’s other major shareholder, was played out messily before the press. Kenwright spoke of Rooney as a £50million player, but unless he signed the contract he could leave for a fee decided by tribunal – likely to be substantially lower – two years later.
All year rumours persisted that Rooney would be sold to save Everton’s future. As the contract remained unsigned speculation intensified. It was suggested his head had been turned by his agent and his new England colleagues. Alex Ferguson was spotted playing golf with Stretford. Then an extraordinary story broke in which it was revealed Rooney had used local prostitutes. Suddenly a footballing dilemma had become a personal crisis. Rooney met Moyes and told him he wished to leave Everton. A £20 million bid from Newcastle was rejected, but by the end of August 2004 he was a £27 million Manchester United player.
The anger of Evertonians, many of whom thought he had engineered the move, was palpable. The day he joined United something of football’s magic seemed to fade. One fan summed up the mood, daubing the walls of Gwladys Street: ‘HE COULD HAVE BEEN A GOD, BUT CHOSE TO BE A DEVIL.’
Invariably Rooney ran a gamut of hatred whenever he returned to Everton, notably for an FA Cup fifth round tie in February 2005, which afterwards spilled over into violence between Everton and United fans. Rooney has since inflamed the situation by kissing his United badge on his return. He claimed in his autobiography that his feelings towards Everton had ‘changed’ in view of his treatment by Evertonians, and yet he has also hinted in the press that his affection for the club has not entirely died.
At Old Trafford Rooney lived up to his potential and has become one of the most revered and feared footballers in the World. In 2005 and 2006 he was named named PFA Young Player of the Year. In 2007 he won the first of a hat trick of Premier League titles, and in 2008 was part of the United teams that won the Champions League and World Club Cup. For England he goes from strength to strength. For United his trophy cabinet continues to swell.